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The best things to do in Cairns

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The best things to do in Cairns

Cairns, nestled in the heart of Tropical North Queensland, Australia, is a gateway to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Known for its vibrant coral reefs, lush rainforests, and adventurous outdoor activities, Cairns offers a plethora of experiences for every type of traveler. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a nature lover, or someone looking to relax in a tropical paradise, Cairns has something special for you. Here’s a guide to the best things to do in Cairns, including the best season to visit and a description of the top spots and activities.

Lounging in the artificial lagoon

The Cairns Esplanade is the city’s social hub, featuring a scenic boardwalk, a large saltwater lagoon, playgrounds, and barbecue areas. It’s a great place to relax, enjoy a picnic, or take part in free fitness classes. You can view the schedule here.

An unmissable activity in the city of Cairns – the artificial lagoon. It is totally forbidden to swim in the sea in Cairns because of the numerous crocodiles and jellyfish which populate these waters. To compensate, the city has created an artificial lagoon which is a perfect spot to spend an afternoon cooling off from Cairns humid climate. Complete with a pleasant view of the sea, a sandy area to bask in the sunshine and to top it off, it’s completely free to enter!

Explore the Great Barrier Reef

No visit to Cairns is complete without exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world. There are two ways to view this Natural Wonder of the World:

From The Sea

What better way to view this phenomenon than diving down to the corals and joining the marine life down there. Many companies offer daytime dive trips, whether you are a beginner or a certified diver you will be amazed by the numerous swim spots. Don’t worry if diving isn’t your thing, snorkelling is also a favoured option as it too will allow a magnificent glimpse of colourful coral gardens and multicoloured fish. Don’t forget to compare tours and ask for recommendations to ensure the one you choose meets your expectations and you make the most of your time!

Snorkeling and diving tours offer up-close encounters with vibrant coral gardens and a diverse array of marine life. For those who prefer to stay dry, glass-bottom boat tours and semi-submersible submarines provide a glimpse into this underwater wonderland.

From The Sky

If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie or simply don’t fancy getting wet, you can skydive over the world’s largest ecosystem. A tandem skydive is very popular with backpackers and tourists with many companies offering this service in Cairns. It is expensive but worth every penny for the breathtaking view. Not to mention a once in a lifetime experience!

Alternatively, you can also observe the Great Barrier Reef without leaving the safety of your seat on a panoramic flight by plane or helicopter. Again, many companies offer flights from Cairns and there are many discounts and promotions worth keeping an eye out for! 

Stroll in the botanical garden

Under the cool shade of the towering plants and trees, the Cairns Botanical Garden is the perfect place to escape the sunshine of Queensland for a few hours. Immerse yourself in this tropical paradise as you discover more than 4000 different species of flora from around the world. Don’t forget to look up to observe the birds and butterflies as well as the orchid greenhouse. Better yet, the garden is easy to access and totally free.

For hiking enthusiasts, head to Mount Whitfield, right next to the Botanical Garden. There are several trails to suit all skill levels from beginner to advanced. Each trail provides a panoramic view of the city of Cairns and its surroundings. The walks are shaded, but it’s the perfect activity for the afternoon to avoid the midday sun. 

Finally, explore the Rainforest Boardwalk, situated right in front of the Botanical Garden. This trail leads to a freshwater lake covered with lily pads and home to several crocodiles. You can also observe and explore the surrounding mangrove.

Discover the beaches and paradise islands

North Queensland epitomizes paradise with palm tree-lined beaches and deserted islands not to be missed. Head to the unmissable beaches of Palm Cove and Port Douglas in particular, or if time allows a day trip to Fitzroy Island and Frankland Islands.

Palm Cove 

Just a short drive north of Cairns, Palm Cove is a picturesque beach town known for its palm-fringed beaches, boutique shops, and upscale restaurants. It’s the perfect spot to relax, soak up the sun, and enjoy a tropical getaway. . It is possible to swim in the sea on the main beach thanks to the protective nets that have been installed against jellyfish and crocodiles. The atmosphere and relaxing vibes of this small seaside resort are ideal for an afternoon of fun in the sun. 

Port Douglas

Port Douglas is a city North of Cairns known for its seaside resort. With its golden sandy beaches, the former small fishing village is the perfect place to escape and relax. Many restaurants, bars, designer boutiques, bookstores and spas are found throughout the city, making it an ideal location to spend a day or two.

Fitzroy Island

A 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, Fitzroy Island is a tropical paradise ideal for day trips or overnight stays. The island offers excellent snorkeling and diving spots, hiking trails leading to stunning lookouts, and the chance to visit the Fitzroy Island Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

Fitzroy Island brings together all the clichés of island paradise: white sand, translucent water, palm trees, corals, surrounding jungle and more. This island offers many things to do such as hiking, kayaking, swimming or snorkeling. The main hike on the island will reward you with an amazing 360 ° panoramic view. There is also some restaurants and even a hotel if you don’t want to leave (which will be likely!) To reach Fitzroy, there are various ferries departing from Cairns Harbor daily.

Frankland Islands 

Frankland Islands are quite simply, heaven on earth. To date, only one company offers day trips to get there. Once there, there is no infrastructure such as roads, only a few benches to admire the epic views. It’s an ideal day trip to escape tourists and crowds. While exploring the surroundings, you are almost guaranteed the chance to come across turtles, sharks and clownfish who frequent the Frankland Islands.

Venture into the lush Daintree rainforest

The Tropical North Queensland is full of lush forests including the famous Daintree Rainforest but also Kuranda Rainforest. No trip to Cairns would be complete without a day trip to explore these jungles.

The Daintree Rainforest, part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforest on Earth. Join a guided tour to learn about the unique flora and fauna, take a scenic walk along the canopy boardwalks, or cruise down the Daintree River to spot crocodiles in their natural habitat.

It is a 2-hour drive from Cairns, passing by the Captain Cook Highway, one of the most beautiful roads of Australia thanks to its incredible view of the Pacific. If you have time for a photo opportunity, stop at Rock Stacks. This place is home to many sculptures made of rocks and is a fascinating break to admire this free, natural art. 

To reach the forest, you will need to take the short Daintree Ferry across because there is no bridge giving access. It is also recommended taking a cruise on the Daintree River to observe the crocodiles in their natural environment. This forest is also home to one of the most diverse population of plants and animals on earth. Including the famous cassowary that is endangered but you may be lucky enough to see. Many boardwalks have been set up in the forest to discover its fauna and flora in complete safety and to avoid tourists wandering off-track destroying the natural landscape.

The main point of interest here is Cape Tribulation, where the reef meets the rainforest. It is also recognised as the most Northerly point of Queensland and the most Northerly part of the East coast of Australia that you can access by car. This beach is as beautiful as it is impressive and owes its name to James Cook who ran aground nearby in 1770. 

Kuranda – a city in the tropical heights

A former mining town, Kuranda is also famous for its rainforest. It can be reached via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, one of the main attractions in the area. Aboard this cabin, you will fly over the rain forest and make various stops passed waterfalls, allowing you to wander through the lush vegetation. Upon your return from Kuranda, take the scenic train known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway. It meanders along mountains, valleys and waterfalls – allowing for some breathtaking photos!

Discover the wildlife and landscapes of the Atherton Tablelands

At an altitude of 700m west of Cairns, you can admire superb landscapes and abundant wildlife, including the rare Tree Kangaroo. The artificial lake Tinaroo is one of the most visited attractions in the area. Water sports, hiking and fishing are the most popular activities.

If you go deeper inland, head to Undara Volcanic Park. Located 3 hours by road from Atherton (4h15 from Cairns), you can discover lava tubes, among the longest in the world. You can also admire ancient volcanoes such as the Seven Sisters.

Atherton is also known to be home to many waterfalls including the most famous and impressive Millaa Milla Falls.

On the road from Atherton don’t miss the Curtain Fig tree. One of the largest trees in the area. A huge fig tree with 15m drooping roots forming a curtain.

Every last Saturday of the month, the city is animated by an art and food market. Don’t miss it if you are around.

Mossman Gorge and Aboriginal Culture

77km north of Cairns, don’t miss Mossman for a walk in the gorges with a suspended bridge at the end. You can also swim so don’t forget your bathing suits!

The Mossman Gorge Center is worth a visit with its Aboriginal art gallery, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. You can also join a ‘Dreamtime walk’ to better understand the Aboriginal culture.

Alexandra Range lookout offers you a magnificent view of the rainforest and the coral reef!

You can also learn about the rich Indigenous culture of the region by visiting the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park or joining a guided tour led by Indigenous guides. These experiences provide insight into the traditions, stories, and connection to the land of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Visit Aboriginal art galleries

Start at the Doongal on the Esplanade gallery in central Cairns, which showcases local Aboriginal artists. The gallery also has locally made didgeridoos or boomerangs.

To learn more about the history and heritage of Aboriginal art, go to the Cairns Art Gallery! The gallery exhibits, among others, the works of Danie Mellor and Rosella Namok, famous Aboriginal artists.

Ten minutes from the esplanade, the UMI Arts program is dedicated to preserving the cultural identity of Aboriginal people. In addition to exhibitions by local artists, you can also buy works of art and design objects.

Eat and wander in the city markets

At Rusty’s Markets you will find a variety of fresh local produce and small fast food stalls at attractive prices. To find the best deals, head there on a Sunday when traders sell their fruits and vegetables, often cheaper than supermarket prices!

The Night Markets are another one of the main attractions in the heart of the city. With more than 70 stands, there is something for everyone. Between souvenirs, clothes, local produce, gadgets, massages, treatments, tattoos – you literally will find everything! Not forgetting the food court for gourmet lovers, which also offers a great variety of dishes from all over the world. 

Best season to visit Cairns

The best time to visit Cairns is during the dry season, from May to October, when the weather is mild, and there’s less rainfall. This period offers ideal conditions for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, with lower humidity levels and clearer skies. However, Cairns is a year-round destination, with the wet season (November to April) bringing its own unique beauty, including lush landscapes and fewer crowds.

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